Hougang United shock league champions Albirex to reach their first Singapore Cup final
Hougang United took a major step towards their maiden piece of silverware after seeing off 2022 Singapore Premier League (SPL) champions Albirex Niigata 4-2 in the second leg of their Singapore Cup semi-final on Tuesday.
The result at the Hougang Stadium meant that the Cheetahs won the tie 7-5 on aggregate and booked the first Singapore Cup final appearance in their 41-year history.
In Saturday’s final at Jalan Besar Stadium, they will meet Tampines Rovers, who pipped Balestier Khalsa 1-0 in the second leg at Toa Payoh Stadium to progress 9-1 on aggregate.
Since being founded as Marine Castle United in 1981, the club has competed under four different names including Sengkang Marine, Paya Lebar Punggol, Sengkang Punggol and Hougang United from 2010.
While they have finished in third place in the league twice in the last four seasons, silverware has been elusive.
But now they are one win away from ending the drought. Their last appearance in a final had been in the 2011 League Cup in which they lost on a penalty shoot-out to Albirex.
Hougang knew they had to be at their best in the two-legged tie to oust a side that had lost only three out of 31 matches this season in both the league and the Cup before their encounter with the Cheetahs.
In their first-leg clash on Friday, Hougang showed a never-say-die attitude, coming back from 3-1 down to force a 3-3 draw at the Jurong East Stadium.
And on Tuesday, they showed their resoluteness and quality.
When it mattered, their senior players, along with some improbable stars, did not let them down.
The trio of Zulfahmi Arifin, Shawal Anuar and Farhan Zulkifli who were all named as part of national coach Takayuki Nishigaya’s provisional squad last Thursday were in top form.
Zulfahmi, who captained Hougang on the night, dominated midfield and rounded off the outing with an assist for Hougang’s second goal, his fourth of the tournament. Out wide, the pace of Shawal caused problems for Albirex all evening while Farhan was a menace from left-back.
In goal, 17-year-old goalkeeper Aizil Yazid showed maturity beyond his years. In the first leg, he had produced a crucial penalty save when the score was 3-2 in favour of Albirex.
It helped as well, that Albirex were at a disadvantage even when 2022 SPL player of the year Kodai Tanaka was omitted from the White Swans squad due to a toe fracture sustained in the first leg. The forward had racked up 39 goals and 11 assists in 32 appearances this season.
And perhaps it was the news that gave Hougang a shot in the arm.
The hosts signalled their intentions from the get go with Sahil Suhaimi forcing a crucial intervention from Albirex captain Jun Kobayashi in the first minute.
But Hougang kept at it, specifically targeting Albirex’s left back Daichi Omori and that approach paid dividends in the 26th minute. Amy Recha’s perfectly timed ball released national winger Shawal Anuar down the right and he applied the finish past goalkeeper Takahiro Koga.